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Patrizia Chen Headshot

An Expensive Kitchen Story

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One of my greatest passions is cooking. I love to plan dinners, even simple ones. It's like creating a poem or a symphony that will bring joy to me, the composer, and to those who'll sit around my table, my audience. They are the most important part of any culinary composition, recipients of the love I offer via the food I prepare.

Each time I feel the need for a new menu, I think of it as a score that will inspire the search for that special balance, for perfect harmony between appearance and taste.

Sometimes, though, dinners can become extremely expensive, as is the case with this year's long-planned Christmas celebrations.

I spend the holidays in Italy at our Umbrian house and come home Dec. 24. I'll have 18 people under the same roof -- rotating characters, of course, as our kids come and go, sisters and nephews fly in and out, and friends appear and disappear. Our home will be chock-full for the entire period spanning up to Jan. 6, the day of La Befana, one of my country's most beloved holidays.

A month ago, contemplating the weeks ahead, which will be pleasant and exciting but also hectic, I decided to indulge and present myself -- and by osmosis those who will attend the festivities -- with a well-deserved and long-awaited gift. A professional stove is something I've wished for my entire life.

The words extravagant and nonsensical kept floating inside my head, the guilt a tangible memento of having been brought up in a family that didn't believe in waste. I could hear my relatives tsk-tskiing my choice. After all, for centuries we had cooked wonderful meals with only the help of a simple range and lots of imagination. Hadn't I learned all I knew on a few gas burners and an antique wood-and-coal stove?

Yet, when I was in Italy, I pored over the magazines and catalogues tossed all over my bed, checked prices and drove around the Umbrian countryside dreaming of a sexy stove-top. Finally I gathered a few local friends around my kitchen table for advice.

They had plenty, as it turned out. Pasquale, Francesco and Giancarlo showed me their favorite option and informed me that it would take only half a day to install this marvel of technology, and I could get it in a week's time. Piece of cake. My new burners would, like all good professional ones, deliver either a high temperature or a low one. Sear or simmer, burn or caress -- visions of extraordinary dishes danced in my head. I could see myself stir-frying wonderfully plump Italian eggplants and crackling sage leaves; I imagined the ease of slow-cooking a perfect Brasato al Barolo or a winter stew.

And the price? Oh! They would treat me really well...

Hurriedly I signed the papers, and the stove was mine. It was better than a fancy new television set, better than a trip to the Caribbean, far better than any precious earring or a necklace...

I flew home to New York. A week went by before the phone rang. The voice was agitated. There was a problem. The stove was installed and it was beautiful.

"But?" I asked, hearing hesitation in the caretaker's speech.

Well, it couldn't be used. "You could die! And with you your entire family...," Rosalba reported. The hood didn't provide enough ventilation, and the heat produced by the powerful new range could easily blow up the entire house. Just a small detail.

Pasquale explained that we'd have to cut through the wall of my 13th-century kitchen, dig a hole behind the bedroom closet, reach up through the wall of a guest bedroom and finally break a hole in the roof and build a new chimney. Convinced that my new stove was more powerful than a nuclear reactor, and by now probably as expensive, I had to focus not only on the cost but also on the weather forecast, and the Umbrian sky wasn't helping. It's been raining since September, and all outside work across the region has come to a halt.

Panic quickly settled in, as I thought of serving cold food to hordes of famished family members, day after day and for weeks. I could picture the polite look in my guests' faces when presented, once again, with sliced prosciutto and cheese. A technical problem threatened to spoil My Big Italian Family Reunion.

Is it feasible to serve entirely oven-produced meals? And last but certainly not least, what will the final bill be? I started with a stove top and I've gotten myself a total kitchen make-over.
As of today the answer is still in the stars: Russian Roulette in an Umbrian Kitchen!

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